Cultural Cannibalism: Detroit's new underground music

Wednesday, September 9, 2015 - 8:15pm

DETROIT — In the last room of a gallery at the Cranbrook Art Museum, a video of artist Nick Cave dancing in his signature soundsuits at various locations across Metro Detroit played on a loop out of a TV nestled in a far corner. I sat, transfixed, for a half hour on a bench in front of the TV, watching the flamboyant giants gyrate and hop into the air in front of abandoned houses adorned with paintings of unabandoned houses, under the crumbling domed ceiling of an art deco theater, in front of the anesthetic machinery of the Ford Assembly Plant in Wayne. There was something uncanny in the footage — in the way the faux fur shimmered against the gleaming white epoxy floor of the Ford plant, in the way the sound of thousands of rattling twigs swelled and then disappeared amid the chatter of market day on the city’s east side — something uncannily right. I felt that the suits had to have been made for Detroit: for its industrial ruins, urban blight and violently persistent vibrancy.

I was reminded of a description of Detroit from the novel Middlesex by author Jeffrey Eugenides, himself a native of the city:

“Planning is for the world's great cities, for Paris, London, and Rome, for cities dedicated, at some level, to culture. Detroit, on the other hand, was an American city and therefore dedicated to money, and so design had given way to expediency.”

What Eugenides captures so masterfully here is the way in which the culture of a European world capital like Paris or London — a culture that drags in its wake a sense of historical continuity, of progress, of the linear progression of time; a culture meant to last — seems so violently out of place in a city like Detroit, which, money and industry having left it, simply can’t afford the luxury of making a museum of itself.

In the Dark Ages, after the fall of the Roman Empire, medieval Italians built houses out of marble salvaged from Roman palaces and filled bathhouses in with dirt to make foundations for Christian churches. This same practice of salvage and reuse, which you might consider a type of recycling, is very much at play in Detroit today.

But in the Motor City — where the auto industry and the exuberant culture it helped fund are still fresh corpses — “recycling” doesn’t really capture the feel of what’s going on. It feels more like cannibalism.

But cannibalism has its culture, too. It has painting, sculpture, photography, theater, religion, sports — and it has music.

The New Guys

In mid-August, I went to one of the newest sites of the city’s architectural autophagy: Tires. Situated on a grassy corner about two blocks away from Martin Luther King High School on East Lafayette Street, Tires is a music venue and creative space whose name alludes to the old Lafayette Tires building, which now serves as the venue’s walls and roof. It has no signage and its massive garage doors are surrounded by a chain link fence. The venue has no website, but the performance schedule can be found on owner Mike Lapp’s Instagram account, scrawled in black ballpoint pen on a series of napkins and yellow legal pads.

I was there to watch a music video shoot for “K9” by Gosh Pith, a duo comprised of University alums Josh Smith and Josh Freed. The Joshes moved to Detroit in 2013 and quickly became mainstays of the city’s underground arts scene, fitting seamlessly into a musical culture characterized by extensive cross-pollination of genres, warehouse and loft parties, heavy bass, industrial and electronic elements and a generally bohemian outlook. Josh Smith sings and plays guitar, regularly uses “fuck” and “shit” with an infectious exuberance in the course of conversation, and has a large mane of blonde-dyed hair. Josh Freed is a producer, has shoulder-length brown hair and glasses and comes across as the more restrained half of the duo. Both refer to their music as “tunes.”

While I watched the Joshes direct their music video from the stage at Tires, I looked around the sizable crowd assembled for the shoot and saw a number of faces that unfalteringly appear at parties and concerts around the city. There was an editor from Daily Detroit, there was a DJ I saw almost get into a fist fight over performance time at the Russell Industrial Center and there were a number of photographers, directors, graphic designers, promoters and singers whom I hadn’t met but whose Soundcloud pages and personal websites invariably make their way across my Facebook and Twitter feeds. I found that this was the way things usually go in Detroit as, in a phone interview a week later, Josh Smith explained how he and Freed became a part of the city’s music scene.

“Before we moved down (to the city), everybody went to the same parties and you just started to recognize familiar faces,” he said. “We kind of just started going to shows as much as we could, and we were making tunes simultaneously, and so it was just a natural progression, I suppose. If you go to every party for like two months, you can book a show just because you know everybody at the show that you just met.”  

And Gosh Pith’s reach and success as a band does, in fact, seem to have grown as quickly as Smith described. Since forming two years ago, they have released one six-track EP called “Windows,” have another project slated for release later this fall, and are already capable of booking shows across the country and in Canada. Our phone interview was conducted on the Kalamazoo leg of a tour that included stops in Toronto, Milwaukee, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, all arranged by the Joshes themselves, who have no PR rep or management team.

Their sound, however, is very much grounded in and supported by the Detroit music scene.

“We want to make shit that’ll sound good on the sound systems that are around the city,” Smith said. “We want it to bang, we want the bass to hit hard, and everybody in Detroit is real as fuck so we make songs that are well-written, that are tangible and have some real emotion about them … (Detroit) informs our music because we go out and get fucked up every weekend, whether we’re playing or not we go support our friends, and it just informs our psyche.”

Even Gosh Pith’s cross-genre experimentation is made possible by the city’s unique musical landscape and tight-knit artist community.

“So many of the shows that go down in Detroit are the most broad-genre shows you would ever find, I think, because it’s kind of a small music community,” Freed said. “If you need someone to fill out a bill, it doesn’t matter if they fit that tightly with your band … It’s cool that our band could have any sound and fit in and do well in that space, but I think that we have done a pretty OK job of being able to play within the genre and kind of shift around.”

Creativity abounds in the city, and it feeds off of itself, producing an increasingly refined, professional sound with each new addition to the scene. But as large as its pool of cultural history and creative material might be, Detroit and its culture industry are still suffering from fallout left behind by the collapse of the auto industry and the socioeconomic structure built on top of it. Traditional economic logic holds that growth requires capital, and, as Smith made very plain in our interview, “There’s not much money in Detroit.”

The Old Guys

While Gosh Pith’s hustle and talent is clearly a major component of their success, they’re also operating in an artistic community that is still essentially in its infancy, particularly in comparison with the music industries of larger cities like New York, Nashville, Atlanta or Los Angeles.

Since Motown Records relocated to the west coast in the early ‘70s, leaving a massive dent in the city’s profile as a culture industry, maybe a dozen Detroit artists — including J Dilla, Eminem, Jack and Meg White, Dej Loaf, Kid Rock, Big Sean and Danny Brown —  have managed to achieve national recognition while maintaining their identification with the city as an essential part of their artistic personae. On the one hand, the diversity of those artists’ styles and portrayals of what it means to be a Detroiter reflects the real diversity of a city whose popular image became, thanks to the ascendancy of the Big Three and Motown, a flattened caricature of something akin to an assembly line spitting out Model Ts full of Stevie Wonder records. At the same time, however, the vast range of artists and styles operating in the city over the last 20 or 30 years also belies a fragmented cultural consciousness, a city riven by population decline and competition for scant resources.

Visiting Detroit’s underground music venues this past summer, however, “fragmented” would have been the last word on my mind. During our interview, the Joshes pointed me in the direction of a number of artists and bands that supported them when they first arrived in the city — the weirdest of which was, perhaps, Lord Scrummage.

Alex Lauer and Conor Edwards, two members of this loosely organized experimental act, moved to Detroit and began making music in 2006, the beginning of Kwame Kilpatrick’s second term as mayor of the city and just a year after Ford and GM stocks were downgraded to junk status. It was also the year Detroit hosted both Super Bowl XL and a significant portion of the World Series. The Detroit Institute of Arts, Orchestra Hall and Fox Theatre were all undergoing major restorations. Detroit was making a bid to rebrand itself as a tourist destination at the same time as lifelong residents of the city decried the funneling of resources toward the Midtown and Downtown areas and away from communities suffering from crumbling infrastructure, crime and urban blight.

But, talking with Edwards and Lauer about the music scene in the city, I couldn’t pick up on any of that drama.

“It was a lot smaller then, I felt like,” Edwards said.

“In the beginning we were just like, ‘Hey, we’ve got a big loft here, let’s just have shows here.’ It was what we were doing in our parents’ basements and stuff before, so we just kept it going on a different level,” Lauer added.

They painted a picture of a group of friends and creative acquaintances, making music and art, essentially to entertain themselves, with little to no interest in expanding into an industry.

“It was never like a business thing. It was more just friends getting together and organizing events; it was never really a big moneymaker or anything. It was just doing things, and things started to come together naturally,” Edwards said.  

And that model of artistic production seems to have held sway in Detroit for the better part of the last 10 years, encouraging the development of talented semi-professional artists and quality, artist-run venues dedicated to good times and community engagement. That ethos largely continues today — in nearly every interview I conducted for this piece, the “Detroit ethos” came up either explicitly or implicitly — but at some point over the last couple of years, things began to change.

“I’d say a couple of years ago is when I really noticed it,” Lauer said, “and that was when I met Kash and Martez (Claybren) and Takayla (Patterson), and they were putting these shows together that were like the Teklife people from Chicago, all of that footwork music and a bunch of local hip hop. And then the shows, it was all the genres in one show, and then those guys all started making music together.”

The KushMan

In the interest of full disclosure, I will say that Martez Claybren is a friend of mine. But he’s also a friend of just about every artist in Detroit, it would seem, including Ka$h Tha KushMan, the youngest member and most recent addition to the Bruiser Brigade — a Detroit rap collective directed by and stylistically organized around the music of Danny Brown. Brown is, I would argue, the best rapper Detroit has ever produced (with apologies to Eminem), and without question the most innovative, blending EDM, hip-hop and its British iteration, grime, into a menacingly surrealist product that fits the landscape of Detroit like a glove. And unlike other Detroit rappers like Big Sean or Eminem, Brown seems legitimately interested in producing a school of Detroit hip hop that is both stylistically distinct and large enough and to assert itself as a legitimate challenge to the West Coast, Atlanta and East Coast varieties.

With rap wunderkind chops, Martez’s connections with the Chicago footwork scene and official support from the elder Bruisers, who started sneaking him into clubs around the city when he was 14 years old, Ka$h seems poised to create a body of work as technically skilled and stylistically innovative as Danny Brown’s. I met him for an interview with his manager, Takayla Patterson, at a coffee shop on Grand River in Downtown Detroit. Ka$h arrived late with a tattoo-covered blonde girl who I was not introduced to and sat at a separate table, eating Chobani, for the entirety of the interview. He kissed Takayla on the forehead before sitting down and then explained that he was tired, having been up all night tripping on acid. He was eating a muffin.

Detroit’s hip-hop scene has always been underground, essentially, and would continue to be so were it not for J Dilla, Danny Brown and, to a lesser extent, Eminem. As Ka$h describes it, that scene is just now beginning to move past a schism created by Brown’s unconventional style and  eventual rise to fame.

“I just know, back when Danny, when he was early starting, his voice is so weird that a lot of the cats in the city were like ‘We don’t really fuck with it. We don’t like it,’ ” Ka$h said. “And later in the years when it evolved into the Bruiser Brigade, we separated ourselves because those people were trying to kick it with us all of the sudden.”

But Detroit’s rappers clearly have ambition — Brown, Dej Loaf, Big Sean and Eminem are all proof that the city has the ability to produce national stars. And as I talked to Ka$h, it became clear that he sees the city’s underground hip-hop scene shooting to the forefront of its national counterpart.

“The artists start to realize that doing it by they self, they’re not gonna make it as far,” he said. “That’s why the city of Detroit doesn’t have as many big stars as Atlanta or California — it’s because there, even through their beefs, they still unify when it comes to the music. So I think Detroit is finally just seeing that and saying that they need to set aside all the B.S. and just make it work.”

And, while Ka$h can understand why the city’s hip-hop scene has the history it does, he sees the younger generation of rappers — rappers who feel just as at home in the city’s hip-hop community as they do in the generic melting pot that characterizes the rest of its underground music — are doing the work necessary to move toward a unified community of artists.

“Me, personally, I’m trying to kill that, because like, that was then, that was 10 years ago. We’re all pretty much in the same position now, we need to get together.”

The (Business)man

After the Joshes told me there was no money in Detroit, they backpedaled a bit and said that I should look into Assemble Sound.

I googled Assemble and found an article in Crain's Detroit about Garret Koehler, a 28-year-old entrepreneur from Chicago who moved to Detroit to work on an unsuccessful bid to bring the X Games to the city. After the bid fell through, he decided to stay in Detroit and start Assemble, what he describes as “an organizing body for musicians,” which promotes collaboration between the city’s underground artists and helps connect them with moneymaking opportunities like licensing contracts and institutional grants. I e-mailed him and we set up a meeting at Assemble’s headquarters — a repurposed German Protestant church located a block away from the Detroit Central Station.

I arrived early, and Koehler, who looks and sounds like an enlightened frat bro, was making himself a chicken salad sandwich. He took me on a tour of the building, which is currently in the midst of massive renovations funded entirely by the artists involved in the project. He’s also seeking private investment and has entered the project into consideration for a number of institutional grants. The redesign plans call for three studios and a shared live room on the church’s second floor, with more studio space and a performance area on the ground floor.

Koehler’s office is coated with posters of Chance the Rapper, an artist who, he explained, serves as an inspiration for the entire project.

“Inspired by what I saw in Chicago with Chance and the SaveMoney crew, I got interested in the industry trends and sort of, I guess the change in power, if you will. The democratization of music and distribution, and what that meant for music,” he said.

And Koehler’s vision for how democratized music could look in Detroit is, indeed, inspiring.

“Artists move to Nashville or L.A. because they want to be in proximity to industry, it incentivizes artist development and gives them access to the people that you feel like you need to have access to to develop,” he said. “But what’s weird is that the whole industry is changing right now; it’s more about artist direct to consumer, direct to their audience, building that relationship, figuring out ways to monetize your work to the extent that you want to. So we were less interested in, like, importing industry, because I don’t even know what that industry looks like anymore. More so, this is just a group of artists that are just like ‘Let’s not be so siloed and fragmented, let’s try to be really intentional about building a more collaborative and cooperative ethos in Detroit underground music.’”

He plans on developing educational programming for musicians — like bringing copyright lawyers in to discuss the way royalties function — and a residency program where artists exchange unlimited access to studio space for working as collaborators on other residents’ projects. A number of artists are already making use of Assemble Sound’s facilities — when I visited, one of the members of Passalacqua, a hip-hop duo, was in the studio working with members of rock group Flint Eastwood on a track that was going to be licensed to ABC — and others, like Ka$h and Gosh Pith, certainly seemed interested in the arrangement. But it’s hard to say what effect groups like Assemble might have on the city’s underground scene, and whether this cooperative arrangement, inspired by the city’s cooperative ethos, could hold its own against traditional music industry model, as Koehler explained.

“Our idea was to have a cross-genre, cross-generational space that’s all about championing creative cooperation and economic cooperation as a foundation for success. Not only for local musicians, but also for the broader scene to represent,” he said. “So, we don’t know if, like, that actually is a true thing — if being collaborative and cooperative actually leads to success. It’s just a belief we have.”

Tires

I came back to Tires at the start of September to talk with its owner, Mike Lapp. In the two weeks after Gosh Pith’s music video shoot, the warehouse had been transformed into a film set, and a small tech crew was working on preparing for a scene from an adaptation of Ovid’s "Art of Love." A few plaster busts were spread around the concrete floor, which was separated by 20-foot-tall walls that had not been there at the time of the shoot.

Lapp, a native New Yorker, moved to Detroit from Brooklyn five years ago and opened Tires seven months ago, after purchasing the building from his mechanic. He has since, with the help of his team, turned it into a professional venue that hosts concerts in a range of genres, serves as the set for film and music video shoots and, more generally, serves as a place where the city’s underground art community and business and political classes can meet and interact, on the artists’ terms.

Tires is, like much of Detroit, on the cusp between legitimacy and disaster, suspended in the tense middle ground created when a city survives off of the remnants of its own recent past. It’s an infinitely interesting moment — perhaps Ka$h’s ambition, blended with Assemble Sound’s collaborative business model and the cooperative ethos created by long-time artist/residents like Lord Scrummage could catapult Detroit’s art scene to the forefront of the nation’s producers of cultural capital.

Or, maybe not. The ruins are standing all around — the price of failure is literally tangible, even in the paint peeling off the side of Tires’ walls.

But it’s an infinitely beautiful moment as well, and with pressure put in the right places, Detroit’s underground culture might become one of those cultures built to last.

For Lapp, though, the city has to come to terms with itself and let its culture come out of its own shadow.

“Everywhere across the world there are these beautiful late night cultures that the cities can make money and tax and have a good time, and everyone respects it, so why do we have to hide in the shadows and be afraid?” he said. “There’s funding out there for artists, there’s funding out there for film, there’s funding out there for all of these things that are from 9 to 5 p.m. and my question is, ‘What about everyone else? What about all of the others?’”